Friday, 27 March 2009

Fictional Sceptics #6: Star Trek (part 2)

In my previous entry on the matter, I discussed how (early) Star Trek acted as a kind of utopian vision for secular humanism. I also showed that, despite how dated it can seem at times, it was always a highly progressive series - particularly in terms of race and gender equality.

This time, I want to examine the numinous aspects of Star Trek - that is to say, the ways in which it preserved the sense of wonder to an almost spiritual level while remaining secular. It is closely linked to the spirit of scientific discovery, and the kind of excitement exemplified by the likes of Carl Sagan in his Cosmos series, and Phil Plait at a new development or line of research. It is an important aspect of science and scepticism which religious people often claim cannot be found outside of supernatural belief systems.

There are dozens of examples I could use to illustrate this point; it seemed that every other episode of The Next Generation involved the crew investigating, researching or just sightseeing at some interesting nebula, supernova or what have you; sometimes it was the premise of the show, sometimes it was an incidental detail along the way - but it always managed to express that they were explorers and scientists first, experiencing the wonder of the galaxy first-hand.

The particular example I want to use today, however, is a little more complex. Those of you who read my footnote on the post-Roddenberry Star Trek in my previous post will know that I noted a drop in secular humanism as a theme after Gene Roddenberry's departure. What I'd like to add to that is that subsequent series did seem to be more morally complex than TOS and TNG, and, while they were more accommodating to religion, they rarely - if ever - attributed to it powers that it does not and could not possess.

The case of the Prophets of Bajor is a particularly interesting case. Here we have a hugely pervasive religion with a tremendous amount of power over its followers - and incidentally a vehicle through which the series can explore themes relevant to scepticism and religion. The interesting thing is that their "prophets" - spirits or gods, essentially - are real. That is, they are actual beings who reside within the stable wormhole proximate to Bajor.

It is interesting to note the contrast in reactions between the Starfleet personnel and the Bajoran clergy (for want of a better term) to the scientific discoveries made in the wormhole. Both are awestruck, but that's where the similarities end. The officers, Sisko in particular, are desperate to know more about the wormhole and the beings that reside within in it - from what little they already know, the wormhole is stable because it was constructed by the aliens, and the aliens themselves do not experience a "linear existence" as we do, and thus have no concept of time. The Bajorans remain steadfast in their dogma, though at first it seems that the two can coexist - the spiritual definition of the prophets, and the scientific explanation of them.

But when a religious controversy springs up about the teaching of science in school, the tensions become clear. The question is asked as to why the station's single school is teaching only about the science of the wormhole and not the spiritual dimensions acknowledged by the Bajorans (a majority of the students, it should be noted). The teacher is adamant that only the science will be taught, and that the school is not a suitable place for spiritual instruction. It's a great parallel to the evolution/creationism debate.

But to get back to my point, at no time does it seem that there is less wonder and beauty to be found through the scientific perspective as opposed to the religious one. Indeed, it seems as if the religious people, having caught a glimpse of the truth, immediately shut their eyes so as to preserve that glimmer of wonder, and, having instilled it with all their hopes and expanded it with their imaginations, are unwilling to then open their eyes and see the truth of the wonders - which is no less amazing.

The best thing about post-Roddenberry Star Trek is that it becomes more complex in terms of morality and personalities, and therefore far more relevant to the real world. It is no longer a Utopia, but perhaps more of a realistic cultural extrapolation of where humanity might find itself a few centuries from now.

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